A compelling explanation of how techniques used on the battlefield can be applied to business leadership Extreme Ownership is a must read for military members and civilians alike. Shedding light on the revered world of the Navy SEALs Jocko and Babin detail how their experiences during training and the war in Iraq gave them the skills necessary to coach business leaders across the world. Through the mastery of seemingly simple principles the pair provide a forcible case for the importance of calm and decisive leadership in times of crisis, regardless of setting.
Part I: Winning the War Within
Immediately the book begins with the author’s recollection of vicious fighting in the battle of Ramadi. Describing the fratricide of an Iraqi soldier Jocko explains the most important principal of leadership, and of the book – extreme ownership. In the aftermath of the fratricide, mistakes were identified by numerous parties that had contributed to fatality. Ultimately Jocko explains that responsibility for it had to rest with him as commander of the operation. In the face of dynamic and chaotic situations leaders must understand that their role is to account for and plan for such factors not to use them to shirk responsibility when things go wrong. While intimidating, this idea of extreme ownership provides the best avenue for leaders to learn and grow while simultaneously receiving the respect of those under their command.
Leif goes on to explain how there are no bad teams, only bad leaders. Drawing on notions of extreme ownership he details how leaders must be capable of checking their ego to reverse poor culture or performance. As a junior leader it can often be difficult to establish new norms for fear of failing, however as the authors point out doing nothing is a failure of extreme ownership. If you are unable to accept that you, as a leader, may be the root cause of underperformance there is no way for that situation to resolve itself. The author’s explanation of this dynamic appears simple, but the challenge comes with the possibility of having to fall on your sword and swallow your pride to achieve the objective. In the pursuit of effective teams, the role of the leader is not to dictate and never falter, rather it is to learn and accept responsibility wherever possible.
Part II: Laws of Combat
Moving on to more specific techniques of leadership the book goes on to apply combat techniques to broader situations. Describing how his platoon cleared buildings in Ramadi, Leif focuses on how the notion of ‘cover and move’ is essential to teamwork. Leif explains that in functioning teams all members need to understand what they are trying to achieve and how that will be accomplished. When this occurs teams can work cohesively and efficiently, with each member aware of the role they are required to play. As a result, Jocko advocates for simplicity in planning, especially in dynamic environments. While the temptation exists for leaders to develop complex plans the authors stress that doing so increases the likelihood of failure. From this we, as leaders, need to clearly articulate our plans to our teams. Doing so will enable teams to effectively ‘cover and move’ in unity towards an agreed end state.
The ability of leaders to prioritize and decentralize is posed by the authors as a solution to complex scenarios. Leaders will always be faced with competing priorities; however, it is their job to discern which ones are essential and which are highly desirable. The authors stress that if you can clearly define your goals, the process of delegating authority to those under your command is easier. A clearly defined set of goals enables a simple plan that can be readily understood and executed.
While these principles seem like planning 101, the authors’ point is that leaders should constantly assess whether what they are doing is the best way to achieve a given objective. In complex environments leaders can inadvertently get drawn away from the primary objective when it comes to planning. Through a process of constant reflection and refinement this can be averted, allowing for a decentralization of responsibility wholly focused on the core mission.
Part III: Sustaining Victory
For the final part of the book Jocko and Leif focus on the concepts of decisiveness and leading up-and-down the chain. Drawing again from his experience in Ramadi, Leif explains that there will always be uncertainty and ambiguity in life, however the job of a leader is to make decisions. Decision paralysis can be costly to a team and leaders must be prepared to make choices without access to all the information. In the authors’ view making a decision and executing it – in accordance with the principles in part I and II – is preferable to doing nothing and failing to achieve the objective. When mistakes or failure occur as a result, if the leader checks their ego and accepts responsibility, the outcome will provide a learning opportunity that will prevent the same mistakes being repeated.
The authors then explain how ‘leading up and down the chain’ can be a viable method of reducing uncertainties. Influencing those above you to provide more clarity or resources better enables a leader to establish a clearer plan to those below them. For junior leaders it can be a tricky task to push back against the hierarchy, however if they are genuinely wanting to be successful then it will be required. Just as it is necessary to clearly articulate your plans going down the chain, Leif makes clear the importance of doing so up the chain. If your superiors do not understand how you are going to achieve an objective it becomes extremely difficult for them to provide you with everything needed to do so.
Overall Extreme Ownership provides an easy to read but difficult to implement set of principles relevant to all leaders. While some elements are more applicable to warfighting, Lief and Jocko do an excellent job of applying the principles to specific corporate situations. Demanding that leaders accept ultimate responsibility for their mission and team the authors encourage decisive and thoughtful action in the face of uncertainty. Filled with lessons that have been learnt the hard way this book should feature on the reading list of anyone seeking to better themselves as a leader.
About the author: Jack Ryan is a junior officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy where he studied politics and history. You can follow him on twitter @justjackryan